In a second-floor Howard Avenue studio in Kensington, artist and activist Gary Rosenthal stands in front of a low wooden box that holds dozens of thin sheets of colored glass. At casual glance, this rainbow array is a collection of art supplies. But for Rosenthal, 68, the glass is a tool for healing from illness, for affirming one’s Jewish faith, and for maintaining hope.
“Here’s what I’ve always tried to do—make things beautiful while doing good,” Rosenthal says.
His four decades of creating Judaica morphed into all kinds of unexpected work along the way, most recently his Glass Ribbon Project, in which small, polished “strength stones” are given to patients to hold for comfort while they undergo cancer treatment. Rosenthal was inspired to embark on the project in 2012 after several women he knew were diagnosed with breast cancer.
The smooth jewel-toned squares, about an inch on each side, also are meant to be given to friends and family as reminders to appreciate and support their loved ones being treated for cancer.
Rosenthal began with pink glass for those with breast cancer, but as the open boxes ready for shipping show, the stones have been adopted by those dealing with many types of cancer, like purple for lymphoma and teal for ovarian cancer.
In a related project, Rosenthal has enlisted hundreds of people across the United States and in India, Poland and Israel, among other countries, to make the simple glass items in groups as good deed projects and for fundraisers. “It’s from Poland to Poughkeepsie,” Rosenthal says. “We’ve had book clubs and soccer teams and family-and-friend support groups for a sick person.”
For the past 10 years, Rosenthal has funded the Glass Ribbon Project himself. Then, in 2020, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“That’s the great irony, isn’t it?” he says of his own diagnosis. So now he works constantly with the polished stones and has distributed some to friends and family to support his own cancer journey.
Rosenthal had surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and has felt “spectacular” for nearly two years, but says doctors recently found growths in his lungs and scheduled him to resume cancer treatment. As a result, he is looking for a nonprofit to take over the Glass Ribbon Project and also is winding down his Judaica business, the Gary Rosenthal Collection.
Rosenthal was always an improbable artist. He grew up in Kenwood Park and graduated from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda without a compelling career idea. He decided to study industrial labor relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, but says he dropped out after a failed romance and took up welding as art after being intrigued by a crafts show at the university’s student union. He eventually returned for his degree, and says he completed an MBA in 1984 at the University of Virginia.
When he graduated, a crafts movement was flowering in America, and Rosenthal began creating small sculptures that focused on hobby and sports themes. An early success came from little metal dancers mounted on marble left over from the construction of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. They were on the shelves for years at the center’s gift shop. He did lacrosse figures for the Baltimore market and sold his wares at shows in malls throughout Montgomery County. “White Flint, Montgomery Mall, Wheaton: I was in those craft shows in the centers of those malls,” he says. One customer asked if Rosenthal could create a menorah, he recalls. He did, and an even bigger career was born.
“After the Holocaust, people were afraid to show they were Jewish,” Rosenthal says. “That finally changed, but no one was making Judaica in the 1970s. We filled a huge empty lane, making Judaica that looked like art.”
At one point in the late 1990s, Rosenthal had 50 employees, shipping goods to a growing network of stores that sold religious items. All three floors of his current Kensington studio were filled with skilled designers and fabricators. “In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, those were good years for Jews to be open in their identity,” Rosenthal says. “Anti-semitism was very under the rug. It was a 30-year period where it was OK to show you were Jewish.”
One of the many fans of Rosenthal’s work is Alex Shapero, a nonprofit consultant from Washington, D.C. He established MyZuzah, which works with Jewish groups to try to place a mezuzah—a small decorative case inscribed with Torah verses traditionally affixed to the front door—on every Jewish home in the world. He’s bought mezuzahs from every country he visits, but “I’m a sucker” for Rosenthal pieces, he says, and commissioned Rosenthal to make a custom series of the sculptures for his organization’s use. “His aesthetic is so colorful, creative and playful,” Shapero says. “He’s opened up a lot of eyes with his artwork.”
Rosenthal is married to Marta Goldsmith, a city planner, and the couple, who have two grown children, have long lived in D.C.’s American University Park neighborhood.
His focus now is finding a home for his Glass Ribbon Project. He’s willing to throw in thousands of dollars and art materials. “Every group has its own mission, and it’s difficult getting them to adopt ours,” he says. “But there is such need for comforting ways for people to be supported as they endure cancer. We know these stones help without the awkwardness of not knowing what to say or do. They help people connect when they need it most.”
This story appears in the November/December 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.